Sometimes Americana is a fickle genre; it spins off down blind alleys and one way streets in all kinds of maverick directions. Other times it shoots straight from the hip. You may have read that compelling article we poached (I mean borrowed) from Guidelive.com several days back concerning its nature. In case it passed you by, it delves into the age-old question of the pigeon hole. To get back to the matter in hand, Dallas singer songwriter Andrew Combs has released his third album which is a little bit country, a little bit folk, a little bit pop but quintessentially all American in sound and suggestion.
Having signed a new deal with New West Records Combs recently emerged from Battle Tapes Studio in his adopted Nashville with Canyons Of My Mind. It is a seminal work, an exploration of the broad expanse of one man’s reflections on America’s transition into a post-digital nation. It gets to grips with different aspects of change and in many ways can be defined as being the struggles of an old school spirit growing up in an ever-changing society. Apparently there have been Guy Clark comparisons – compliments simply don’t come any higher – and there are hints of Clark in the way Combs weaves his narratives – although perhaps with Canyons he has moved towards a more commercial sound. There is little sign of Clark’s famous mischievous humour here, although to be fair this is a serious record by an artist with a serious message.
A defiant vulnerability is conspicuous in Combs’ lyrics and the theme of ecological sustainability runs strongly throughout Canyons. Returning co-producers Skylar Wilson (Justin Townes Earle, Caitlin Rose) and Jordan Lehning (Rodney Crowell, Caitlin Rose) have smoothed away any rough edges associated with the last album All These Dreams, going for a slightly more polished feel this time, which suits the mood. Although still at his most potent when in ballad mode, Combs is mastering the mighty electric country riff with some gusto as is evident from opener Heart Of Wonder, which although a mild-mannered, mid-tempo yearning country pop number does contain a ferociously distorted lead solo. The line “Words, they numb this pain and hunger/Nothing culls my heart of wonder” can be taken as a gauge to the context of Canyons. Combs has indicated that he is taking the well of his own artistic resources and holding it parallel to the wider ideas of world preservation – exploring the notion of nurturing the creative spirit alongside the endangered world, a line of thought that is taken further as the album runs its course.
Dirty Rain is the embodiment of Combs’ environmental forebodings. It’s a beautiful song and disturbing enough to render the listener affected by the message which bleeds through the vocals “What will all our little children say/When the only place to play/Is in the dirty rain”. The arrangements are strong throughout and complement the lyrics, as is the case in Rose Colored Blues; soaring lap-steel and strings hold court alongside the acoustic finger-style as Combs sings of a rail ride under wide Montana skies. Hazel and album closer What It Means To You find Combs in full soaring balladeer voice, all unashamedly Americana – whatever that is.